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This Friday, the 8th of March, sex workers across Britain are going on strike. To mark International Women's Day, thousands of escorts, phone-sex workers, strippers, erotic dancers, pornographers and more will march on London in a call to arms over what they call the "sexist, racist and criminal laws and whore stigma that jeopardise our lives".
Sage Woodford is one of them. A trans non-binary independent sex worker who offers BDSM services in London and makes and sells their own queer porn, Sage is striking in solidarity with all sex workers, including those at the margins.
I caught up with the women's and trans rights campaigner to find out what, exactly, a sex strike looks like, and why sex workers are demanding change.
This interview has been edited for length.
VICE: Hi Sage, why are sex workers striking on March 8?
Sage Woodford: We're striking as part of the women's strike on International Women's Day, which calls attention to labour exploitation in all areas of women's lives. Exploitation might happen in the office, on the shop floor, at home or in a brothel. It's also about the exploitation of feminised labour, including cleaning and caregiving, that is often very low paid, if at all, and has low status in society. As for sex workers, we are striking to call attention to our work as work. Lots of people still don't consider sex work to be a valid job. And whether you love your job or hate it – or whether you choose to do it or have no option because you're desperate – you are still exchanging your labour for pay. All workers deserve labour rights.
What are you hoping to achieve, from a sex work point of view?
In the UK, we want full decriminalisation of our work. But what I'd really like this march to achieve, on top of fighting gendered oppression, is to call attention to the plight of the most marginalised workers in our nation, many of whom are undocumented migrants who fall through the cracks of legal work. It's impossible to advocate for your labour rights when your work is illegal.
How does UK law criminalise sex work?
Much of the new criminalisation that's being brought in – particularly around how we advertise our work independently online and the platforms where we share information – has been done in the name of stopping trafficking. In the UK, migrant workers are targeted by police in brothel raids, their cash is confiscated, they're dragged into the street in their underwear and they're deported.
But this isn't just about giving a voice to migrant sex workers, is it?
No. Sex workers like me are criminalised, too. The act of receiving money for sex isn't illegal. But what's most mind-blowing about this is that the activities intended to make sex work safer are usually the ones that are criminalised. For example, brothel keeping is illegal. But under UK law, a brothel is defined exceptionally vaguely as any sex worker sharing a premises with any other sex worker. That effectively makes it illegal to work with another sex worker in the next room, say, for safety.
What about people who work on the street?
It's even worse. Workers can be arrested for loitering and soliciting if they're visibly attracting clients. This drives them into more isolated spots where clients know there is no one around to hear them if they call for help. Then there are prostitute cautions, given out at the discretion of the police officer, that stay on your record. That stops them from getting other work and perpetuates the cycle. They're also given ASBOs, meaning they can no longer visit an area where perhaps their kids go to school or their friends live. We're talking about human beings here, whose only crime – more often than not – is needing to survive.
So what's the upshot?
I think the law treats sex workers as legitimate targets for violence, honestly. The effect of criminalisation is to push sex workers into the shadows. It forces them to rush negotiations with clients because they don't want to spend too long being conspicuous, and it sends a clear message to abusers that sex workers' safety is not the priority of the police. That kind of gives them carte blanche to rape, abuse, assault or even murder, if that's what they want to do.
Wouldn't it be safer, then, to just work in a brothel where there's at least some protection from violent clients?
It might be more convenient to not have to do your own advertising and just show up for a shift then go home, but in a criminalised workplace, managers can sexually harass sex workers with impunity, or underpay them, or slap them with fees they don't deserve, or refuse to supply condoms, or pressure them to provide services they don't want to give. We shouldn't be criminalising survival strategies. We should be addressing the root causes that are driving people to take this kind of wok to survive. We need to look at poverty, benefits, austerity, migration and the big picture.
Can't the police do something?
A lot of people in my network fear the police. I'm sure a lot of police are trying to do their jobs and do a good thing, but too often the experiences of people I know have been that police are bullying, opportunistic and interested in doing raids simply so they can pocket the cash under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
The Sex/Work strike website says criminalisation of sex work categorises women either as Sacred Virgins or Bad Whores. What does that mean?
I think there's this idea that sex workers are this dirty strand of society who are acceptable collateral damage in the effort to cleanse our society of unwanted elements. We are separating women into two groups: those who are deserving of respect and compassion and those who are not because they have transactional sex. I mean, we stereotype sex workers as vectors of disease, required – in legalised contexts – to have mandatory health checks, but no one demands that clients have health checks. There's an inherent misogyny – and hypocrisy – in that, and certainly has little to do with public health.
Are you concerned that there could be repercussions for certain sex workers who join the strike? I'm thinking about certain types of employers who might not be so understanding.
Those of us who can strike are striking on behalf of everybody who can't. I don't think there's a concept of a scab. Those of us who are able to take the streets, who have less to fear, will be doing so in solidarity for people who maybe don't have the option. It is to highlight everybody's needs.
Organisers say the strike is also on behalf of people who have transactional sex for things other than money. Who are they?
Sex work could be expanded to encompass anybody who has sex in order to meet their material needs. What about people who are having sex for rent? Or people who are staying in a bad relationship and having sex with someone, even though they don't want to anymore because otherwise they'll lose their home or they'll lose custody of their children or they'll be deported? People have transactional sex all the time. It's just not as black-and-white as we think.
What are the long-term goals of this movement?
Decriminalisation of sex work is the immediate concern. We want the work to be safer. But in the longer term, we want universal access to healthcare, to prescription drugs for those with addiction issues, to affordable housing. We need a welfare state which can actually cope with people's needs and provide for them, and until we have that in place, people are going to continue doing whatever they need to do to survive.
You've been involved in setting up a sex worker union, right?
I'm not personally involved, but it's already had success claiming thousands of pounds in compensation for exploited workers, which is just fantastic. It's called United Voices of the World, and any sex worker can join, whether they have migration status or not. It is explicitly about creating community, power and solidarity for people who are working precariously. Until now, the union's campaigning has focused on strippers and erotic dancers because that's legal and more visible to the world. But once more of the industry has been decriminalised, we want to expand its advocacy to include labour rights – minimum wage, working hours, health and safety and so on – for all sex workers.
Feminists of all genders are invited to join the march at Leicester Square at 7PM on Friday the 8th of March.